Depth of the drying front and temperature affect emergence of leatherback turtle hatchlings from the nest
Sea turtles bury their eggs in nests at depths ranging from 25 to 100 cm. After hatching, turtles crawl up to the surface and emerge over several days. Some hatchlings fail to emerge and die in the sand column. In this study, we investigated the effect of the depth of the drying front (the region separating saturated and partially dry sand), number of hatchlings emerging, depth of nest and temperature on the emergence of hatchling leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) over the course of three nesting seasons (2008–2009, 2011–2012 and 2012–2013) at Playa Grande, Costa Rica. The depth of the drying front affected the number of hatchlings that failed to emerge in all years and high temperature reduced emergence rate in 2008–2009 and 2012–2013, but not in 2011–2012. Most of the variability in emergence rate was explained by the number of hatchlings emerging and the depth of the drying front. The number of dead hatchlings was mainly explained by the depth of the drying front and temperature. Depth zones within the sand column that included the drying front and the egg chamber registered the greatest number of dead hatchlings. The depth of the drying front, temperature and number of hatchlings remaining in the sand column increased and the emergence rate decreased as the season progressed. Leatherback turtles are critically endangered in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Conservation strategies towards improving the conditions in the nest environment (i.e. nest irrigation and shading to decrease the depth of the drying front and temperature) could boost hatchling production and contribute to revert declining population trends.
We thank all the field biologists and Earthwatch volunteers responsible for collecting the data used in this investigation at the Goldring-Gund Marine Biology Station, the Director and Park Rangers at Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, and the staff of the Leatherback Trust at the station and in San Jose.
This study was funded by a grant from the EARTHWATCH Institute, the Schrey Chair of Biology at IPFW and the Betz Chair of Environmental Science at Drexel University. PST was funded by a Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship within the 7th European Community Framework Programme.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest
All authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.
All applicable international, national and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. The study was approved by the Animal Care committee of Drexel University and research permits were obtained from the Ministry of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica (MINAE).
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